A decade ago the Squamish Nation language was in jeopardy, with only 10 fluent speakers remaining, many of them elderly.
At that time, Khelsilem, a Squamish Nation member, was a 16-year-old student at Carson Graham secondary. Rather than taking French or Spanish as a language elective, he signed up for Squamish.
“I remember feeling like we need to do more,” he said. “I was really worried about what would happen to our language if we didn’t do more.”
He’s done a lot more since then. First learning to speak Squamish himself, then teaching others at his father’s home through informal language nights and then starting a non-profit called Kwi Awt Stelmexw that’s focused on the language, cultural and artistic revitalization of his community.
The latest step is a new partnership with Simon Fraser University to launch a two-year full-time Squamish Language adult immersion program that’s now accepting applications for the 2016-’17 school year.
The program’s goal is to graduate 15 speakers of the language each year with the hope of adding 150 fluent Squamish speakers by 2027.
There will be space for 15 students each year, who will spend 1,000 hours of classroom time taught exclusively in Squamish language.
“I think that the road to a thriving language community is still a long road from here. I believe that our goal as a community should be to have a minimum of 10 per cent of the community being able to speak their Squamish language as their first language. And I think that everything that we do from now until that point is all part of the collaborative and collective work that we’re doing together to achieve that,” said Khelsilem.
Khelsilem’s road to fluency in Squamish began with a master apprentice program led by Squamish Nation member Vanessa Campbell that included 300 hours of language immersion with her through a program offered by the First Peoples’ Cultural Council.
“I was able to really rapidly increase my proficiency and fluency in the language. I still have more to learn of course, there’s always more to learn. That was a big change for me – I became a speaker of the language later on in life, not as child but as a second language speaker.”
Khelsilem’s grandmother was a fluent speaker of Squamish before she was sent to a residential school.
“She left the school after 10 years and wasn’t able to speak it anymore.”
But she spent summers with her grandparents who only spoke Squamish, so she retained some of her language.
“So when I was growing up she would share with me the pieces that she did know and she still does to this day and was kind of the inspiration for feeling that the language was really important.”
Applications for the program are being accepted until March 18 at 5 p.m.
On March 11, Kwi Awt Stelmexw is hosting a gala to raise funds for a scholarship for students of the program. The gala takes place at the Chief Joe Mathias Centre and features keynote speaker Hana O’Regan, a Maori language educator. For details,visit KwiAwtStelmexw.com.